SOHN – Rennen
In early January – and shortly before hearing this album for this first time – I binge-watched last year’s HBO drama Westworld. The parallels between the two were really rather striking; in the show there’s a constant hoping between a rural wild-west setting and a cold, sterile office set filled with glass walls but where you’re never sure if you’re seeing clearly. There’s a constant battle between our past and our future, and the show explores the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of humanity and artificial intelligence, with a constant exploration of consciousness and the decisions we make.
Sohn – aka Christopher Taylor – has somehow – accidentally – managed to incorporate many of those same themes in his second solo album. Writing and recording in rural California – after tiring of LA – you can hear a rugged, country-inflected soul in Rennen including the use of beer bottles and kitchen utensils for percussion parts, but it’s overlapped with cold, harsh synth parts throughout that bring to mind James Blake and Aero Flynn.
Rennen is, on the surface, a tremendously appealing alt pop record. It’s full of catchy melodies and accessible songs with some magnificent percussion and dazzling synths. Album opening Hard Liquor sets a relentless pace; sounding like a bastardised version of one of those Westworld saloon scenes, malfunctioning AI noises and all.
But it’s on the second track – Conrad – that the album begins to truly reveal itself. Because – away from the surface – this is an album in which the lyrics – often only in snippets and repetitions – speak of a bleak individual, not quite tortured but unsure if its him that’s the problem or if things are really as bad as he believes. Two of the verses in Conrad reveal a trepidation; a lyrical reinterpretation of George Santayana’s missive – often attributed to Churchill – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”:
I can feel it coming over the hillside
It’s a valley fire and it’s coming to burn us down
Like a rushing comet bound for the planet
And we’re dinosaurs living in denial
I can feel it coming, coming back to haunt me
It’s a glass that’s empty and we’re trying to fill it up
We’re lost civilians with the weight of millions
We’re pawns in war living in denial
Sohn – a former Vienna resident – has spoken of how the Austrian Presidential Election last year – in which a Far-Right candidate narrowly missed out on victory – affected the album’s material, along with the rise of Donald Trump. But far from being a brash protest record, Rennen sees Sohn exploring his own reactions, his own convictions and strengths, as much as encouraging others to rise up. As he sings on Primary:
But everybody knows it’s wrong
Everybody knows it’s wrong
And I can’t do this to the one I love
I hope I can go on
I hope I prove myself wrong
There’s a strong emphasis on self-doubt throughout Rennen; as if Sohn himself can’t currently gear himself up for battle, or even come to terms with the realisation that battle is once again required.
The theme of ‘going on’ constantly reoccurs on Rennen in two different ways. There’s a restless quality to the lyrics. The theme of travel and moving on continues to loop back into the songs; reflecting perhaps Sohn’s own recent travels from Vienna to Los Angeles. But there is another – more ominous – element to it as well; Falling and Harbour both deal with death-defying desires – ‘Hope I will never drown, I will never drown’ are the closing lyrics on the album – which seem to reflect how dark Sohn is finding the world in 2017. The supply of hope seems to have been cut off, and he’s searching for a way to keep his good instincts alive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the desire for hope – religious allegories and imagery weave their way into the lyrics. Perhaps most obviously on – title-track – Rennen ‘Oh Father, release me’, ‘My faith don’t mean a thing’ but also on Primary (‘Give me patience’ Sohn asks, with echoes of the Serenity Prayer). Penultimate track Still Waters also seems steeped in Christian tradition; there’s a pleading for a male figure to ‘silence the storm’; ‘Lend him the light to prevail’ only moves us closer to John 8: 12, with Jesus declaring ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’
It is of great credit to Sohn that an album filled with such dark thoughts and despair can sound so good. It takes a very special hand to create 37 minutes of pop music this good; to present a shiny, catchy pop veneer and to have lurking under the surface a pool of anger, resentment, questions of identity and self-doubt. The best album of this nature in recent years was the absolutely magnificent Get To Heaven by Everything Everything, and while Rennen falls a little short of that standard, it’s still a hugely impressive piece of work.
Almost every review or story of this album has talked about it being ‘more political’ which is true, but is also to slightly miss one key element; Rennen is the story of one man’s search for hope, and how elusive it can be.